Saturday, February 12, 2022

When Is It Time To Quit?

by Anita Sanchez


Whenever someone asks me how many books I’ve written, I reply proudly, “Dozens!” They’re suitably impressed. And it’s quite true—I’ve written dozens of picture books, poems, stories, and seven full-length novels.

But if they inquire how many books I’ve published, the answer would be quite different. Most of the books I’ve written are unpublished, and probably always will be.

Henry David Thoreau wrote literally millions of words, most of them unpublished in his lifetime. But he never stopped writing. “It is wise to write on many subjects,” he said. “You must try a thousand themes before you find the right one, as nature makes a thousand acorns to make one oak.” Thoreau was not only an author, but a passionate and wise botanist. He knew that the plant which produces only one seed is at risk of extinction, but the plant that produces many has a better chance of survival.

But here’s the terrible question, the one I’ve wrestled with again and again—when to quit a manuscript and move to the next one?

Sometimes there’s a flaw so fatal that the whole project stops in midsentence. I once wrote a biography of a nineteenth-century biologist who studied the weird reptiles known as Gila monsters. He had an uproarious, adventure-filled life, and seemed a perfect subject until my research led me to the unescapable fact that he was an extreme racist. I fell out of love with him, although not with Gila monsters--I wrote about them instead.

But sometimes it’s harder to know when to pull the plug. There’s no one right answer, no magic formula. A clue can be when several people whose judgment you respect point out the same things again and again. (Don’t take one person’s word as gospel, though—always get a second opinion, and a third, and a fourth…) Perhaps when the writing of it feels like drudgery instead of nourishment. Perhaps when the pile of rejections threatens to sap your courage to the breaking point. And perhaps it’s when a new idea is thrusting against the husk of your brain and can’t wait to germinate.

It’s said that the Greek philosopher Plato found his first literary work was not up to his mentor’s standards, and so he threw the scroll into the fire. I could never do that—lose it all forever. But sometimes there does come a moment to click SAVE on the laptop. Once, we authors crammed unpublished manuscripts in dusty drawers, saved them on floppy disks, or consigned them to the dark recesses of cyberspace. But these days, I’m uploading my files to the cloud. I like the idea of my unpublished books floating through the ether, like dandelion seeds on the breeze, drifting off to future possibilities.

Does abandoning a manuscript mean your beloved book will never see the light of day? Far from it. There are always options. After experimenting with new material, I often come back to older work. I might self-publish a nonfiction book on an odd topic and hope to find a niche audience. I could recycle a story into a blog post. I might read a rhyming picture book to my granddaughter as she sits on my lap, a delightful secret between the two of us.

Or someday I might resurrect a book, tweak it just right, and have a triumphant bestseller. You never know which acorn will be the one to touch the sky.


Give It a Try

One of the things I do when I’m stuck as to what to work on next, is to get my ideas off the computer and onto paper. I take brightly-colored index cards (remember them?) and write each possible idea on a card. Any idea, no matter how crazy.

Then I deal them out on a tabletop or the floor, and play with putting them in order. I arrange them in order of originality, and then in order of marketability, and then which ones would be the most fun to research. Then I line them up in order of easiest, hardest, or most controversial. After a while, one title keeps popping up towards the top of the row again and again. Seeing the possibilities spread in front of me helps me choose which one to put my energy and enthusiasm into next.

 

Meet the Author

Anita Sanchez is especially fascinated by plants and animals that no one loves, and the unusual, often ignored wild places of the world. Her books sing the praises of the unappreciated: dandelions, poison ivy, tarantulas, mud puddles, deserts. Her weirdest book is Itch: Everything You Didn’t Want to Know About What Makes You Scratch.

A picture book about animals that love mud, Hello, Puddle! is due out in March 2022 from Clarion Books. In fall look for Meltdown: Why Glaciers Are Melting And What We Can Do About It.

 


37 comments:

  1. Fabulous post - and love the cover of your book. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you so much! I really needed to hear these words today! I'm looking forward to your new books. I also love LEAFLETS THREE, LET IT BE. I still use what I learned in that book when I'm out in the woods. :)

    ReplyDelete
  3. I am a big fan of colored index cards - and like you I've got a bunch of stories in a bin getting dusty. Just re-read Karl Get Out of the Garden... and can't wait to see your new book.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thanks so much for these ideas! Originality and marketability--two ways to sort!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Anita, thank you for talking about a topic that often gets pushed to the side. I love your Thoreau quote!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Thank you, Anita, for the encouragement and inspiration.

    Suzy Leopold

    ReplyDelete
  7. Thanks or pointing out the 'pivot' as an option if your first idea goes off the track.
    Great post.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Thanks for sharing your process. You never know when you might use those saved but unpublished manuscript.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I LOVE this post...like Marcie Atkins, I needed to read these words today, too. Sometimes, being in this biz feels like a never-ending game of shuffle, drop, re-group. Thank you, Anita!

    ReplyDelete
  10. Anita, thank you for this awesome post. Today, I pondered some story feedback and how I might approach my story in a different way. Your suggestions spoke loud and clear!

    ReplyDelete
  11. Thanks for the great ideas, Anita! I'm looking forward to reading Hello, Puddle!

    ReplyDelete
  12. Great idea to use index cards! My library is purchasing your new book and I'm number 2 in line.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Thank you for exploring the ideas of quitting and not giving up on projects!

    ReplyDelete
  14. Loved your index card idea! Thanks for an interesting post.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Thank you for this post. We pour our souls into our projects and many never see the light of day. But they are still our babies. They were written for a reason and we shouldn't get up on them.

    ReplyDelete
  16. ANITA: THANK YOU and Mr. Thoreau for reminding us that EVERYTHING we write is IMPORTANT--that each story has a life to live. I find myself putting stories away for a while, and when I come back to them it's like meeting with an old friend again. Usually the time away allows me to see what can make the story FINALLY ready to see the light of day. THANK YOU for the INSPIRATION to be open to seeing different options for our work; that sometimes publication isn't its path, but that doesn't make it any less IMPORTANT and NEEDED. To look to Nature as our teacher in her wisdom to consider all the possibilities--all those little acorns waiting to take root, waiting to "touch the sky." THANK YOU SO MUCH! I will be keeping this post close to my heart for continued INSPIRATION.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Thanks for this post. I love the quotation from Thoreau!

    ReplyDelete
  18. Thank you for the quote from Thoreau. And that cover is so adorable!

    ReplyDelete
  19. Love this index card activity and definitely plan to give it a try! Thanks for the inspiration!

    ReplyDelete
  20. Love your acorn quote next to the quote from Thoreau. I can now imagine my ideas on those index cards as acorns. Then I pick one, plant it; nourish it, and watch it grow out of my heart, mind and pen into a book. Thank you!

    ReplyDelete
  21. I love this idea for choosing your next story...I have so many titles rattling around Anita! Tanks for sharing this post. I am very excited about your new book! I love the cover! Marianne

    ReplyDelete
  22. Danya Vasquez DavidFebruary 14, 2022 at 1:53 AM

    Thank you for this! Especially loved the "drudgery or nourishment" test. It got me to the answer I needed. :)

    ReplyDelete
  23. Looking forward to reading your books!

    ReplyDelete
  24. Great post! I agree that it is always a great idea to keep unpublished ms saved. You never know what can happen!

    ReplyDelete
  25. Thanks for the ideas on rethinking unpublished work. Love your books!

    ReplyDelete
  26. I love this so much, Anita! No writing is ever wasted. It's just biding its time.

    ReplyDelete
  27. Thank you! An en-courage-ing post!

    ReplyDelete
  28. Thanks for this post and I look forward to your new books!

    ReplyDelete
  29. Anita, thank you for this post. I love the idea of turning my ideas into a deck of cards - and that each one is an acorn - one will definitely take root, if not more. Perfect image of hope and never giving up. I'll be on the lookout for your books.

    ReplyDelete
  30. Great post. The title of it scared me a bit but as I read on I found so many truths and good ideas. Thank you.

    ReplyDelete
  31. Provocative question your post asks. Love you throw in Thoreau, Plato & mud. Creative!

    ReplyDelete
  32. May find a forgotten treasure in my own archives. Thank you.

    ReplyDelete